A Cause To Die For

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is, sadly, yet another conflict that is consuming the lives of foreign volunteer fighters

Katim S. Touray, Ph. D.
7 min readMar 29, 2022
Mural with the iconic image of Argentinian revolutionary, Che Guevara on a home in Santa Monica, California, USA. Picture taken on Sept. 18, 2011 by the author

Three days after Russian invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022, the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, appealed to “all citizens of the world, friends of Ukraine, peace and democracy” to join Ukraine, Europe and the world to fight against “Russian war criminals.” Zelenskyy said that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was also a war against Europe, democracy, basic human rights, global order, and peaceful coexistence.

Barely a week after President Zelenskyy’s appeal, about 3,000 volunteer foreign fighters from the United States of America (US), Sweden, Lithuania, Mexico, India and other countries arrived in Ukraine, in the midst of heavy bombardment by Russia. A few days later, about 20,000 foreigners (about 3,000 of them from the US) had applied to volunteer to fight in Ukraine.

Some foreigners volunteered to fight in Ukraine because they see the conflict as a “good versus evil” one. On the other hand, some US volunteers who are veterans of the US war in Afghanistan, see the conflict in Ukraine as an opportunity to redeem themselves from disastrous US withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The countries where the foreign volunteers come from do not share a common position about the involvement of their citizens in the conflict in Ukraine. While the UK, Canada, Denmark and Norway have all by and large voiced their support for those who want to fight in Ukraine, the US issued a warning against travel to Ukraine. Similarly, African countries such as Senegal, Algeria, and Nigeria warned their citizens against joining the conflict in Ukraine.

As in other conflicts throughout history, foreign volunteer fighters in the conflict in Ukraine face especially difficult circumstances and risks. In addition to a measly $230 monthly salary, volunteers also had to sign contracts that bind them to serve for an indefinite length of time. The volunteers are also on shaky legal ground because Russia sees them as “Western mercenaries.”

Shortly after Ukraine announced that around 20,000 volunteer fighters from 52 countries had joined their fight against Russia’s invasion, Russian President Vladimir Putin gave the green light to recruit Syrian volunteers to fight in Ukraine on Russia’s behalf. The Syrian government of President Bashar Al-Assad, which has survived a 11-year civil war because of Putin’s military support, gladly obliged.

The conflict in Ukraine is shaping to be in many respects similar to past conflicts into which foreign volunteer fighters are drawn. For example, the on-going Syrian Civil War which has raged since 2011 has about 20,000 foreign fighters, consisting of anti-government Sunni Arabs, and pro-government, mainly Shia volunteer fighters.

Foreign fighters also participated in the insurgency against US-led Multi-National Force following its invasion of Iraq in 2003 to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Although foreign fighters accounted for a less than 10 percent of those fighting against the US-led forces, they were responsible for 75 percent of suicide bombings between August 2006 and August 2007. The foreign fighters formed the Tanzim Qaidat al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Rafidayn (commonly called al-Qaeda in Iraq [AQI]), which later morphed into the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), and later, Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), also known as Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or Daesh (its Arabic language acronym).

In 2014, ISIL declared itself an Islamic State or caliphate with religious, political and military authority over Muslims the world over. ISIL drove Iraqi security forces out of key cities, and by December 2015, it controlled an area about 44 thousand Sq. Km (17,000 Sq. miles) stretching from western Iraq to eastern Syria and with 8–12 million people. ISIL also had over 30,000 fighters and an annual budget of over $1 billion.

Although ISIL suffered serious losses because of US- and Russia-led attacks in Iraq and Syria, respectively, it had a network of affiliates in 11 countries, ranging from Nigeria and Somalia in Africa to Afghanistan and the Philippines in Asia. These affiliates have continued to wreak havoc and untold crimes against innocent people around the world.

Many foreign volunteer fighters in Iraq and Syria were veterans of the conflict that ensued from the Soviet-Afghan War (1979–1989). In December 1979, the former Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan to overthrow the government, and imposed its loyalist Babrak Karmal. Because Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union, over 160,000 Ukrainians fought, and over 3,000 of them lost their lives in the Soviet-Afghan War. The Soviet invasion was roundly condemned by the Organization for Islamic Cooperation and the UN, and the international community imposed sanctions on the Soviet Union, including a boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympic Games in Moscow.

The Afghan resistance to the Soviet invasion and occupation of their country was led by the Afghan Mujahideen which consisted of two broad groups: a larger Sunni Islamic union based in Pakistan, and the Shia Islamic union based in Iran. The Mujahideen were backed by various countries, including Pakistan, the US, Egypt, and West Germany, with core support coming from the United Kingdom (UK). US support was especially critical because it came as part of its proxy war against the Soviet Union, and provided “Stinger” missiles which proved a turning point in the war.

The Soviet-Afghan War also attracted many foreign Muslim fighters, who saw it as a battle against Soviet infidels occupying Afghanistan, an Islamic country. An estimated 10,000 to 35,000 foreign fighters from the Middle East, North Africa, South Asia, and Europe joined the war against the Soviets, who withdrew from Afghanistan in February, 1989.

One of the foreign volunteer fighters in Afghanistan was Osama bin Laden, from Saudi Arabia. Shortly before the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, Bin Laden co-founded Qaedat al-Jihad, commonly known as Al-Qaeda in 1988. Al-Qaeda attacked the US in 2001, resulting in the on-going US-led Global War on Terrorism which has so far resulted in an estimated 1.3 million to 2 million deaths and costed the US $8 trillion.

In 1992, the Bosnian War started when Bosnian Serbs took up arms against Bosnian Muslims who had declared Independence from Serbia. As a result of the atrocities committed against Muslims, and the overtly religious nature of the war, many veteran Mujahideen fighters from the Soviet-Afghan War went to Bosnia to help their fellow Muslims in Bosnia. An estimated 1,000–2,000 foreign Muslim fighters from the Middle East (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen), as well as the US, and Turkey fought in Bosnia, driven by a their unifying Muslim identity with Bosnian Muslims. The foreign fighters in Bosnia improved the media techniques and strategies they used in Afghanistan by filming their military maneuvers and distributed the videos on the Internet, which had started getting popular.

Foreign volunteers played a key role in the Cuban Revolution (1953–1959), with the most famous and iconic of them being the Argentinian Ernesto “Che” Guevara. Although of upper-class extract, Che was radicalized by his exposure to the poverty, disease and hunger that many poor people in Latin America suffered. After completing his medical studies in Argentina in 1953, he joined Fidel Castro, the revolutionary Cuban leader who had formed the 26th of July Movement to overthrow the US-backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. Following their victory over Batista, Che became an important member of the Castro-led government, serving as diplomat, Minister of Industries, and head of the Cuban Central Bank, among other roles.

Che became the architect of Cuba’s strategy of exporting national wars to Africa and Latin America. Under this program, Cuba assisted Algeria, Cape Verde, Congo, Ethiopia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, and Somalia in Africa, as well as Grenada, Guyana, Nicaragua, and Venezuela in the Americas. Many of these efforts, however, faced significant problems, including the fact that local rebels did not trust volunteer foreign fighters; a problem that led to Che’s betrayal, capture, and execution in Bolivia in 1967.

Seventeen years before the start of the Cuban Revolution, the Spanish Civil War (1936–1939) broke out, following an abortive military coup. Thus, the leftist Republican government went to war against fascist-backed Nationalists led by General Francisco Franco. Given that Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler (both fascist) were in power in Italy and Germany, respectively, many anti-fascists feared that the future of European democracy was threatened. Despite this, the US and the UK refused to intervene in the Spanish Civil War, coming less than 20 years after the end of World War I.

As a result, 40,000–50,000 anti-fascist volunteers from 52 countries poured into Spain and took up arms against the Nationalists. The volunteers included Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, intellectuals like George Orwell, union workers who feared that fascism would roll back their benefits, and African-Americans who wanted to liberate Ethiopia by defeating its then colonial power, Italy.

Many foreign volunteer fighters in the Spanish Civil War were recruited by the Communist International (“Comintern”), which was a Soviet-led international association of communist parties. The Comintern-recruited volunteers were organized, along the lines of their nationalities, into International Brigades such as the Commune de Paris (France), the Abraham Lincoln Brigade (US) and the Garibaldi Brigade (Italy).

Twenty four years ago, I was fortunate to interview the late Clarence Kailin, a former member of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade on a public affairs program on WORT FM in Madison, Wisconsin. I invited Mr. Kailin and the then young activist Ben Manski to discuss activism and how it had changed over the generations. In the program, available online, Mr. Kailin also talked about the Spanish Civil War and his motivation for volunteering to fight in that war.

The foreign volunteers in the Spanish Civil War suffered significant casualties, with an estimated 5,000–6,000 of them being killed, and thousands more declared missing. Although the volunteers paid the ultimate sacrifice for their ideals, they lost to Franco and the Nationalists who were backed by Hitler and Mussolini. Nevertheless, the International Brigades helped prolong the Spanish Civil War by almost two years, thereby forcing a weakened Franco to remain neutral in World War II.

The Spanish Civil War, the Cuban Revolution after it, and many other wars in human history all show that people have always been ready to fight — and if necessary — die for a cause they believe in. And the on-going war in Ukraine is no exception.